Should the Public Score Police Encounters? NMA E-Newsletter #704

“To Protect and To Serve” is the motto we frequently see on the side of police vehicles. Most of us understand the “To Protect” part of the equation. We ask the men and women in blue to handle life-and-death situations on a regular basis. But what about the ‘To Serve” portion of the job?

The Washington Post recently reported on three police departments, which employ a new officer rating system. The Warrenton, Virginia, department, patrolling a small town of nearly 10,000 residents an hour’s drive from Washington DC, uses Guardian Score along with two university police departments.

After any significant encounter, an officer hands out a business card with a QR code on the back. Each officer must then take additional time to explain what it is and how one can access a questionnaire.

The person stopped by the officer can fill out a questionnaire by first pointing their smartphone at the QR code on the back of the business card. After accessing the portal, the respondent can rate the officer’s conduct anonymously through a series of questions on their phone. The questionnaire is similar to how we rate a ridesharing experience or a phone company call. The police department wants people to give honest feedback on the effectiveness of the officer’s communications and fairness.

The goal is to give more power to those stopped by the police, most commonly during traffic stops. Most people are anxious during these encounters, but being black or brown takes on additional significance due to the potential for racial profiling. Filling out a Guardian Score is a way citizens can give feedback without feeling intimidated.

An officer’s conglomerate score could also be used as part of an individual evaluation that goes beyond the number of arrests and tickets issued. Burke Brownfeld, former Alexandria, VA police officer and founder of Guardian Score said in the Post article:

“If we started to measure how officers are treating community members, we realized we could actually infuse this into the overall evaluation process of individual offers. The definition of doing a good job could change. It would also include: How are your listening skills? How fairly are you treating people based on their perception?”

In May 2022, President Biden signed an executive order that called for the creation of standards for police department accreditation. The order also requires an update on departmental use-of-force policies. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, the subsequent street protests, and calls for police reform, many see this executive order as necessary.

Police Executive Research Forum Executive Director Chuck Wexler said he feels the Guardian Score program could become a powerful tool for departments across the country to measure community engagement—sometimes an elusive and missing element. He added, “At a time when many people are questioning police accountability and how police deal with citizens, police departments are looking for ways to measure how they are doing. And this is one of them.”

So does the program work?

Launched in November 2021, the Warrenton, VA pilot presents many questions about its impact and whether it could work in major cities. The other pilot locations are at two university campus police departments at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA, and Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA.

So far, the Warrenton citizen response rate is around 10 percent, and the rate is closer to 20 percent at both universities. As of early June, the Warrenton police department received 170 reviews, with every one of them positive. Over the past six months, the average department score was 4.94 out of 5 stars.

Questions for our readers: Would you feel comfortable filling out a questionnaire about an officer’s conduct during a traffic stop? What if the encounter was negative–Would it make a difference to you whether to fill out a Guardian Score-type questionnaire?

Your responses could lead to a follow-up newsletter.

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